Quebec at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture

MONTREAL, Quebec — As a province historically steeped in Catholic French culture, Quebec ought to be a flourishing Catholic enclave in Canada.

Indeed, it once was.

But Canada’s second largest province has had a poor record upholding Catholic moral teaching in recent years. Quebec has had the highest rate of youth suicide, abortion and divorce, and a lower birth rate than anywhere else in North America.

The federal Parti Quebecois, which has swept the province in the last few federal elections, now has an official policy that endorses assisted suicide. Church attendance has been exceptionally low, and there is an acute shortage of priests in many places.

Quebec City, the provincial capital, will host the International Eucharistic Congress in June 2008. Will it be ready?

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent words of warning to the bishops of neighboring Ontario, Canada’s largest province, could have been directed to Quebec. Speaking to the Ontario bishops as they wrapped up their ad limina visit to the Vatican Sept. 8, the Pope stated, “In the name of tolerance, your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of ‘freedom of choice’ it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children.

“When civic leaders sacrifice the unity of the faith, and sanction the disintegration of reason,” the Holy Father warned, “democracy is bound for failure.”

But there have been signs of new life in the Church in Quebec, and much has to do with activity on the grassroots level.

Light in Darkness

“Yes, we’ve hit bottom — it’s pretty deep,” said John Zucchi of Montreal’s McGill University. But with a decided note of optimism, he sees that the only way out is up. He is professor of Canadian history and director of McGill’s Catholic Studies Program.

“I saw a bitterness towards the Church in the mid 1980s, more than in the rest of Canada. You used to see the rage coming from the students. They saw the Church as oppressive, fascist, corrupt. They believed that everyone would be saved by the state.

“But the people have come up against a brick wall,” he said. “They are starting to go back to Church. The youth coming to the universities now are different. The battles of their parents and grandparents are not their own. Many were born in a spiritual vacuum. With no antagonism towards their parents they are starting to come to church.”

When asked why there is a turnaround, Zucchi first of all mentions the magnetic pontificate of John Paul II.

“Many young people were attracted to the faith for the first time,” he said. “Then the Holy Father followed up by encouraging the new movements and communities. Here was a place for young people to encounter the Church.”

Luc Gagnon is head of Quebec’s pro-life organization Campaign Vie and editor of the journal Égards. He remarks that the demolition of faith by secular forces will actually breathe new life into the Church.

“We are at the crossroads of a New Evangelization,” Gagnon said. “People now have to ask themselves, ‘Am I Catholic or not?’ The situation will be clearer. We had this illusion that there was a transmission of faith in the schools. Parishes are now more conscious of their mission, and we have very good instruments” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But change need not be gradual, he said. “In Quebec, we have a more monolithic society. Situations can change very quickly. We tend to function as a bloc.”

New Communities

The burgeoning renewal is already showing signs in the priesthood.

“It is not so much who has a vocation, but rather, who does not have a vocation to the priesthood among the young men in our community,” said Father Réal Lavoie, founder of the new Quebec community Marie Jeunesse. Three years ago, the new community saw four of its members ordained to the priesthood. This year, seven young men from Marie Jeunesse are entering the last stages of priestly formation in Montreal’s Le Grand Séminaire.

Marie Jeunesse has an apostolate of evangelization to youth by youth, offering hospitality and formation to the hundreds who come.

Said Didier Vingadassamy, a native of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion who discovered Marie Jeunesse: “I thought that God had abandoned me. I discovered that he had always been there with me. It was as if my eyes opened and I saw God for the first time.”

The Eucharist is central to the young people in Marie Jeunesse, who spend several hours a day before the tabernacle either in community prayer or in private adoration. Such too is the life of another new community in Quebec, Myriam Bethlehem, whose motherhouse on the rocky northern coast of the St. Lawrence River has several adoration chapels. This community also has an apostolate of evangelization and hospitality, both to youth and to others of all ages. The community now has several houses throughout Quebec and several abroad, as does Marie Jeunesse.

Altogether, Quebec has several dozen promising new communities, some that are home-grown, and some that were begun in France. The charismatic renewal is strong, and there are other new forms of ecclesial life such as Opus Dei, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and three new monastic foundations.

Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet said interest is growing in the 2008 Eucharistic Congress in Quebec, where Pope Benedict XVI is expected to celebrate Mass.

“Preparatory groups are forming across the country. Response to fund-raising has been outstanding, especially from the traditional religious orders,” he said. “There is good collaboration for the congress from all levels of civil authorities.”

Said the cardinal: “I dream of the congress that we can expand upon it, make of it an opportunity to recapture our Christian culture and make it fruitful.”

Ann Wilson is based in

Toronto, Ontario.